Sunday, January 24, 2016

BAFFERT: “Horses Are Like Songs”

HALLANDALE BEACH, January 24, 2016--As a prelude to All-American Pharoah Night at the Eclipse Awards, ThoroFan, a Saratoga-based grassroots organization devoted to present and future racing fans, held its fourth annual party.

For the work ThoroFan--a not-for-profit entity whose mission is to give fans a voice and grow the sport--tries to do, their event should have been better supported.

The lesson here may be that converting casual sports fans into racing fans may be more important than horseplayers realize. The Fan of the Year as recognized by Horse Racing Nation, Erica Harris, is a young Nebraskan who doesn’t gamble.

Harris pays her way to major events all over the country. This year she is planning to attend her 10th Kentucky Derby. Why? Because she loves it; the atmosphere, watching horses get saddled, the warm ups and race.

Imagine that?

The group also recognized Bob Baffert for his support of Thoroughbred aftercare and Tom Durkin for his life’s work, especially appropriate in light of the legendary announcer’s farewell salute to racing fans in his retirement speech at Saratoga Race Course last summer.

Baffert’s quote at the Thoro Fan ceremony reflects the emotion he felt when he first visited his retired dual classics winner, Silver Charm. “You never forget where you were when you hear a certain song; it’s the same with horses. It just sticks with you.”

His observation was one of the best things I’ve ever heard to describe the love that the game conjures up. Interesting, too, how a near death experience and “Grand Slam” moments can shape one’s perspective.

The point in recalling all this is that, even a week later, the warmth of people tethered to Thoroughbreds still resonates when experienced in close quarters. Frankey’s, Stronach’s upscale sports bar on the Gulfstream Park campus, turned out to be an ideal, intimate venue.

A secondary point is that it lifted the spirit of this horseplayer about the state of the game, even if the feeling may be only temporary.

The talent this game attracts; from hands-on practitioners, to owners, to fans who appreciate majesty and enjoy using their brains to make money by solving equine puzzles can be, while not suited to every taste, inspirational.

If only racetrack executives did more to care for all the above by giving those invested in the game a fairer shake; enforcing rules instead of burying the truth about how things really are, instead of scapegoating the few. And taking better of the customer via sensible pricing.

Eclipse weekend was a delightful respite from the day-to-day tedium, from myopic, bottom-line-centric backside-coverers who populate this industry. Of course, it’s only corporate life in America where companies who provide livelihoods are considered boardroom failures if profits down grow year over every year. The energy Eclipse weekend was palpably upbeat--and that was nice for a change.

Celebration is not just chest-thumping; it’s important. It inspires hope in a game of tremendous highs and lows. That was a prominent theme when Jim Rome spoke at the Ownerview conference during Eclipse Week.

Rome referenced the joy that he and his partners experienced by sharing the exploits of the amazing Shared Belief, in training one day and gone the next.

I can’t imagine still being so upbeat in light of that kind of tragedy. Yet the sportscaster still had it right when he said that in this game the highs are higher than the lows are low. I’m sure every true racetracker agrees, the reason we all keep coming back for more.

As for the Eclipses themselves, the three voting organizations awarded Eclipse statuettes to the most deserving. I voted for a few who didn’t make the grade but that’s beside the point: “The wisdom of the many” won out.

While running very long, the ceremony was not insufferable, even as some presenters took as long or longer than some of the awardees for whom last Saturday night was intended.

The tone of the night was pitch perfect, with humorous, entertaining and poignant video presentations, packaged in a nicely produced program. If only racing could raise its profile once again, the show might one day make worthy television fare.

The racing presented at Gulfstream Park and elsewhere last Saturday was first rate. Florida-breds went after it all afternoon long looking for a large slice of a seven-figure pie. Per usual, the Sunshine Millions program provided grist for fans and bettors alike.

One truly outstanding performance stuck out, that of the brilliant gelding X Y Jet. If he keeps developing like he has this winter, there could be lots of fireworks when/if he hooks up with Sprint champion Runhappy.

But to return to run as impressively or better than he did winning the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Dec. 19--off shorter rest and after being challenged from the barrier by bullet-like El Botas to win as much the best--was jaw dropping.

Mexikoma deserves some props, too, taking the Sunshine Millions Classic in dramatic style over talented and speedy Mr Jordan in 1:48.19 despite getting caught in close between rivals on the first turn. Thanks to Johnny Velasquez’s quick reflexes, potential disaster was avoided.

BETS ‘N PIECES: Charming Kitten won the H. Allen Jerkens two-mile marathon yesterday; it was a repeat win for Todd Pletcher, who won the inaugural last year. Jimmy Jerkens presented the trophy to Ken and Sarah Ramsey… Did anyone note the irony in the fact that a practicing attorney, who also is a registered pharmacist, will become the Florida HBPA’s new executive director on Feb. 15? Just askin'.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

La Verdad Earns Prima Status

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 17, 2016—Before La Verdad, Sheila Rosenblum thought she had done it all; studying ballet under Ballanchine, performing in “Swan Lake,” had won her share of Dressage ribbons 47 miles from Gulfstream in toney Wellington, some modeling and even a little acting.

But until La Verdad, she had never seen a Breeders’ Cup race live, never dreamed that in five years in the horse business she’d not only see her first Eclipse ceremony up close and personal but that her mare would become a champion.

Sitting alongside family, syndicate members and trainer Linda Rice, La Verdad beat her Filly and Mare Sprint conqueror Wavell Avenue when it mattered most by the slimmest margin in 2015’s balloting process--98 points to 90.

And so the Eclipse Award for champion female in the sprint category went to La Verdad.

“It was euphoric,” Lady Sheila Rosenblum said of the moment by phone later. “The euphoria was like the birth of my children, like performing in Swan Lake. I feel like I just won an Academy Award.”

The mare that received 90 votes and considered a slight favorite to win the championship was Breeders’ Cup titlist Wavell Avenue. However, the voters decided that the overall body of work was the most compelling factor.

“Congratulations,” Wavell Avenue’s owner Michael Dubb said to Rosenblum after the Lady Sheila Stable picked up its trophy. “Your filly deserved the award,” Dubb told her.

And so it was the brilliant New York-bred filly that started her 2016 campaign the same way she began her championship run, with a victory. The score in Aqueduct’s Interborough Stakes was her 16th victory in 25 career starts.

Rosenblum was born in Switzerland but before she could celebrate her fifth birthday the family had moved to Miami, where they lived five years in advance of relocating to New York City where the arts beconed a precocious young lady.

By age 10 Sheila answered ballet’s siren call, a 5-to-7-days-a-week discipline that would last a decade. Her goal was the stuff of dreams; to become a prima ballerina.

Hard work and perseverance are paramount but no guarantor of goals realized, even for a 12-year-old who was offered three dance scholarships including the Joffrey Ballet before opting for the School of American Ballet of Ballanchine instead.

At 15, it was off to England for two years of study at the Royal Ballet School of London but, due to citizenship restrictions, she was forced to shift her tack and ballet slippers back to Gotham’s New York City School of Ballet.

While not realizing her goal to become a prima, Rosenblum did get to perform in Romeo and Juliet in addition to Swan Lake. The discipline she learned from ballet is what helped to become a successful horse owner.

At 20, when the rigors of dance had become overwhelming, Rosenblum gave fashion modeling a go and became a member of the Ford Agency. But as is heard so often in the theatre district, “sorry, wrong type,” Rosenblum packed her tack again, joining the Wilhemina agency.

During all this there was a marriage to a soap opera star and a brief acting career. Because her passion for horses never wavered, she began riding them in her early 30s. Highly competitive, she got into Dressage—“ballet on horses” she says—enjoying success but she “never reached those wonderful levels.”

Sheila Rosenblum
From ballet to backstretch

Sheila Rosenblum views all horses through the prism of ballet: “They’re beautiful, graceful, powerful, yet delicate. My husband wanted to buy me a jumper, a Grand Prix School Master. I thought about it, then I said ”rather than ride and compete, I’d like to own a race horse.”

“I got two horses at first and a number of yearlings. I wanted to learn, wanted to ask a lot of questions, be hands-on. And I did everything horrendously wrong at the outset.

“If I didn’t have the fortitude that ballet gave me, I would have gotten out [of racing] a million times.”

Her fortunes changed dramatically three years ago when she brought several horses over to Rice’s barn, horses she believed had a future. Rice suggested that she leave the horses for a few days and she would evaluate them.

What followed after was a sobering conversation, Rosenblum learning that her horses were “adequate,” but not a prima among them. “Linda placed them where they belonged and they all won. I had the excitement of winning. I was proud. It gave me a deeper love for the game.

“I’m not a feminist and I hired Linda despite the fact she’s a woman, not because of it.” However, her syndicate partners are all women, motivated to become horse owners themselves because of Rosenblum’s energy and enthusiasm.

“It started as a hobby until one day I saw the cover of ‘New York Breeders’ magazine and thought ‘that looks like my filly’.”

That filly, La Verdad, will go home after her career finale in Laurel’s Barbara Fritchie next month and be bred to Medaglia d’Oro. La Verdad will board at Vivien Malloy’s Edition Farm in New York.

“She’s a New York story…a New York love story. I want to be a New York breeder and, like everyone in this business, I want to win the Kentucky Derby.”

Trying to accomplish that goal, Rosenblum and her syndicate spent $840,000 for a Pioneerofthenile two-year-old--to the consternation of the colt’s under-bidder, Bob Baffert.

That unnamed juvenile is now called Champion of the Nile, a name suggested by Victor Espinoza when the two met at a party during Belmont Stakes week. “He did incredibly well the first time then was second in the New York Breeders Futurity.

“We have another colt, Matt King Cole, who ran the fastest Beyer by any two-year-old last year. After he won I decided to bring the partners in. We had tough luck with two other horses; I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Matt King Cole has had three starts, a third, second and a win, respectively, and was being pointed for the Jerome but spiked a fever and was declared from New York’s first Kentucky Derby prep of 2016.

“We’ve been taking it really slowly with these two, but ‘Matty’ will come back soon in something important. He’s on the Triple Crown trail.”

The Eclipse ceremonies ran longer than expected but was entertaining and very well produced. Rosenblum clearly was excited when she heard the news but was composed and elegant enough to invite Rice to share the moment with her on stage.

Rice, also making an Eclipse debut, gracefully acknowledged the other finalists and Cavorting, too, who’s connections risked their divisional lead in the Grade 1 La Brea and finished third, ironically losing the place to Hot City Girl, La Verdad’s kid sister.

For her part, Rosenblum thanked about everyone in the room, including her “great trainer” and said at the start and at the end of her remarks that “I want to bring more women into racing.”

Ahmed Zayat, who picked up most of the hardware all evening including the big one by becoming the sport’s ground-breaking winner of the “Grand Slam” with American Pharoah, thanked Rosenblum for her contributions to the game as did Dubb, NYRA Board member and owner of La Verdad’s principal Eclipse rival.

As she left the stage, Rosenblum was approached by one of the youngest members of the audience. “I’d love to go into business with you,” Anna Zayat said to the Lady Sheila Stable founder.

It appears Sheila Rosenbum is poised to start out on another journey.

Written by John Pricci

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Eclipse Process Playing to Mixed Backside Reviews

BOYNTON BEACH, FL., January 10, 2016—One of the prime reason’s Gulfstream Park has become the premier extended race meet in the country is its state-of-the-art training facility 38 miles north of the Hallandale track.

Most of the East Coast horses on the “good horse circuit” are stabled here and on Sunday morning we had a chance to visit the stable areas of both facilities and we were surprised by what we discovered.

This week, most of the racing industry will descend on South Florida for the 45th annual Eclipse Award ceremonies at Gulfstream Park Saturday night.

From what we know, the only luminary not certain to show is Ricky Gervais and that’s too bad. Surely there will be enough practitioners to skewer next weekend as not all humility-challenged individuals are limited to a town where tinsels grow on trees.

What surprised then is that not all the horsemen we visited, including many who will be in attendance Saturday, are enamored of the Eclipse Award procedure, objecting to the methodology of the voting process itself.

The Eclipses are racing’s version of the primaries. There are three voting blocs; the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, Thoroughbred Racing Association officials, and Daily Racing Form staffers.

The major complaint is that too many of the results often are capricious and arbitrary. As we state every year when making our choices public, the DRF’s late, great Joe Hirsch once counselled a young turf writer back in the day.

On the matter of Horse of the Year, Hirsch, a founding member of the National Turf Writers organization—no broadcasters were permitted to vote in those days—“the Horse of the Year can be anything."

Actually, that is the case in every category. Politics and provincialism, mostly the former, are at work and there are no objective standards. That’s what a majority of horsemen we spoke with Sunday had objections to.

Trainers are pleased that owners, most of whom are well heeled and whose support feeds the breeding industry, often in sizable amounts, are recognized. Accordingly, they should be acknowledged and allowed to bask in the reflected glory of the animals they support throughout the racing year.

Some of the trainers we spoke with admitted they are attending because their owners expect them to. The lament most often heard is there are too many voters who never see in the flesh the horses they vote as champions.

There is no true objectivity and what are the deciding factors: body of work, horse-by-horse matchups, number of Grade 1 wins, where the victories were compiled?

Speaking personally, it is all of the above. I was only of 265 voters, including one abstention, who determined that California Chrome was deserving of Horse of the Year honors.

But, controversy involving a compromised rival notwithstanding, California Chrome was defeated by Bayern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, defined as America’s championship crowning event.

So does that make it the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in name only? The majority of trainers we spoke with believe that to be the case, just as, to keep it real, not all Grade 1s, or G2s or G3s, are created equal.

How, for instance, could an undefeated runner who many believe to be the best of her generation, Lady Eli, fail to be one of three finalists in the three-year-old filly category despite her limited yet undefeated season?

And for journalists, for instance, how could one classification be a so-called Features/Commentary category. Does the winner of this Eclipse finish first by collecting 100 apples compared to the runnerup amassing 50 oranges?

More than one horsemen mentioned that some objective standard(s) should be put in place so that votes are counted on a one-person-one vote basis.

As one suggested, designing a protocol that assigns two members from the three sponsoring groups compile a list of three--even five finalists--before allowing voters to cast ballots for one horse and one individual per category.

Voting for first, second and third in all categories when only first place votes designate the Eclipse champions is a creation that makes the announcement of three finalists possible. To what end, except to boost dinner ticket sales.

In a game correctly built on opinion, establishing qualifying standards and guidelines before voting would be fair to all and provides the best chance to acknowledge the most deserving recipient.

WEEKEND WRAPUP: Bob Baffert-trained runners Corrected and Let’s Meet in Rio finished one-two in Santa Anita’s G3 Sham Stakes and there likely is a Derby victory in their future, just probably not on May’s first Saturday…

Doubtlessly, Corrected showed class by overcoming a wide-throughout trip. Locked and loaded beneath Martin Garcia, he always looked the part of a winner. Stablemate runnerup came up with a very strong late run and rates to improve with seasoning and distance…

Indeed, Let’s Meet in Rio may prove the better of the two as the prep campaign lengthens, but the best performance by a three-year-old this weekend may have come 3,000 miles to the East…

Cherry Wine went from last to first, taking a Gulfstream Park two-turn allowances by six lengths for the team of Dale Romans and Corey Lanerie. Not many races are won at Gulfstream with that running style, especially lately.

Rallying strongly on the turn, Lanerie tipped the Paddy O’Prado-Unbridled’s Song colt wide at headstretch and inhaled the leaders, drawing off “handily.” Trailing a moderate pace, the time of 1:44.37 was solid enough.

Todd Pletcher
has plenty of good options with Hal’s Hope winner Mshawish. Not only did G1 Cigar Mile fourth prove his Donn worthiness, he could still opt for a G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap repeat…

Pletcher still would have three Dubai opportunities; a choice of two turf races, one at a mile, or go turf-to-dirt in the $10-million World Cup. Nice dilemma to have...

The remarkable La Verdad improved her career slate to (25) 16-3-0 taking Aqueduct's Interborough Stakes. The New York-bred six-year-old mare finished first in four graded stakes in 2015 and was second in the BC F & M Sprint, pushing her earnings toward $1.6M.

A worthy Eclipse finalist, La Verdad is scheduled to make her career finale in Laurel’s Barbara Fritchie before being bred to Medaglia d’Oro. She will reside at New York’s Edition Farm thereafter.

Written by John Pricci

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